Wading into the conversation about the best African fighters in MMA can take a bit of a dark turn. There has been plenty of chatter among up-to-date sports news about which fighters are actually African. Most of that has been brought on by South African Driscus Du Plessis.
Du Plessis, who is white, accused Israel Adesanya, who is Black, of not being African because he didn’t live on the continent. While it is true that Adesanya doesn’t currently live in Africa, he was born in Nigeria before relocating to New Zealand at the age of 10. Adesanya, the former middleweight champion, doesn’t have much to explain to anyone.
How sports leagues and organizations determine heritage doesn’t have much to do with where you are born. Brock Lesnar represented Canada during his last UFC appearance after he set up his residence there as an adult. With that in mind, here is a look at some of the best African fighters in MMA history.
Usman Left Mark at Welterweight
Kamaru Usman was born in Auchi, Nigeria, but came to the United States at age eight with his father, who came to the country to work as a pharmacist. Usman would build his base for MMA by becoming a successful wrestler. During college, Usman would win a NCAA Division II wrestling championship for the University of Nebraska-Kearney.
Usman turned pro two years after wrapping up his NCAA career. Being a successful athlete at the NCAA level has helped many Black athletes find a way to the professional ranks. Usman entered the UFC through The Ultimate Fighter reality show. After Usman won the Ultimate Fighter 21 welterweight tournament, he made his UFC debut on December 19, 2015, with a decision win over Leon Edwards. That kicked off a stretch of 14 consecutive wins in the promotion.
Usman won the welterweight championship by beating long-time champion Tyron Woodley on March 2, 2019. He defended his title five times, including two victories apiece over Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal. Usman lost his title in shocking fashion in August 2022 against Edwards.
Leading on the cards in the fifth round, Usman was knocked out with a vicious head kick with 56 seconds remaining. Usman lost the rematch by a majority decision. Recent sports updates show it’s not sure what the next steps will be for his career. A few other top fighters, like Belal Muhammed, have called out Usman, but a next opponent hasn’t been announced yet for the former champion.
Ngannou Bets on Himself
Francis Ngannou was born in Cameroon but couldn’t imagine staying there long. Ngannou was forced to do hard labor from a young age and illegally immigrated to Spain and landed in Paris, France. While in Paris, Ngannou was initially homeless, but an MMA gym owner allowed him to live in the gym and train for no cost.
Ngannou ended up in the UFC after having six pro fights on the regional scene. He debuted with a knockout win over Luis Henrique in December 2015. That was the start of a six-fight winning streak in the UFC that culminated with a title fight against Stipe Miocic.
While Ngganou Lost the fight, he would eventually earn a rematch where he would knock out Miocic in March 2021. Ngannou’s title reign would be short-lived. An injury delayed a unification bout with Ciryl Gane until January 2022. Then Ngannou would walk away from the organization after a disagreement over pay and conditions to sign with the Professional Fighters League.
Ngannou has also looked to find success in the boxing ring. He is set to take on Tyson Fury in a heavyweight boxing exhibition match.
Adesanya: One of MMA’s All-Time Characters
Adesanaya got his start with kickboxing. He started the transition to MMA in 2012 and won his first 11 fights before landing in the UFC. Adesanya quickly climbed the ranks and won the interim middleweight championship during his sixth fight in the organization.
Adesanya unified the belt by knocking out Robert Whittaker in October 2019. Since then, Adesanya has been one of the UFC’s most active champions. Adesanya defended his middleweight championship belt five times. He also went up to light heavyweight to challenge Jan Blachowicz for the title.
While Adesanaya lost to Blachowicz, it was a close fight that went to the cards. While Adesanya’s future is unclear after two losses in his last three fights, he will likely remain in the title picture for a few years to come.
Du Plessis Seeks to Become Next African Champion
There is no denying du Plessis’ talent. But when it comes to selling fights, du Plessis is also positioning himself to be the heel. He was born in Hatfield, Pretoria, South Africa, and claims he wants to be the first African champion. This is obviously upsetting for many people, especially those who were excited when three people with African heritage — Ngannou, Usman, and Adesanya were all holding titles at the same time.
Despite du Plessis’ penchant for inflammatory remarks, there is no doubt he is a great fighter and the deserved No. 2 ranked middleweight. After a surprising knockout win over Robert Whittaker in early July at UFC 290, the promotion wanted him to turn around and fight Adesanya for the title in September. He didn’t take the fight due to a foot injury.
While UFC President Dana White criticized du Plessis for this, there is little doubt he should still be in the title picture. He has wins over top contenders Whittaker and Derek Brunson while also brandishing an exciting fighting style. Du Plessis is now 20-2 in his career and has won 10 fights by submission and nine by knockout.
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